Justly celebrated for blurring genres and opening minds around the globe, the late David Bowie‘s influence across the spectrum of Western music is formidable.
Actually, it’s more than formidable. While many late rock stars are rightly saluted for their influence and impact, Bowie occupies a higher historical tier entirely. He’s not just an influential rocker. He’s not merely one of the most influential rockers. Among rock stars, Bowie influenced more musical genres than anyone else, living or dead. He is, in that respect, the most influential rock star.
Let’s run through this. Obviously, no one is going to question how essential he was to glam rock. While The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane ensured his long-term career and infamy, glam rock as a genre owes him just as much. If Bowie hadn’t gone glam, history would remember it as a goofy, cute curiosity — a sub-genre full of wacky fashion and frothy pop songs, but producing no serious content (apart from one or two T. Rex albums, depending on your taste). Most glam rockers are remembered as that — glam rockers. Bowie, however, produced two albums squarely within the style while simultaneously transcending it. The aforementioned titles aren’t simply glam classics — they’re rock classics. They’re singer-songwriter classics. They are, simply put, works of art.
And then there’s folk. With “Space Oddity” alone, his importance to folk-rock (and what would later be known as freak folk) was forever sealed. But that wasn’t it — songs on Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World only furthered his impact on the folkie singer-songwriter realm.
The latter LP, featuring some of his hardest-rocking material, also solidified his impact in the hard rock scene. While no one is ever going to call Bowie a metal icon, his dark, theatrical tales and presentation inspired contemporaries like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper in the early ’70s. And in the ’80s, glam rock became an essential touchstone for any metal act with a chart presence, from Def Leppard to Guns N’ Roses to Twisted Sister.
In the industrial rock realm, Bowie’s impact can’t be underplayed: It’s impossible to imagine Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson having substantial careers without Bowie paving the way for them. And when grunge replaced pop-metal as the go-to genre for rebellious teenagers, Bowie was once again a touchstone. Pioneering grunge act Green River (the band whose members would go on to form Pearl Jam and Mudhoney) covered “Queen Bitch,” and more famously, Kurt Cobain gave “The Man Who Sold the World” new life on MTV Unplugged.
So even in metal/grunge/hard rock — genres he hardly pioneered — Bowie’s influence is still essential.
Bowie’s importance to electronic music, however, is far more direct. With Low, Heroes and, to a lesser extent, Lodger, the Berlin Trilogy gave electronic music its first major rock world crossover. No, Bowie didn’t invent anything new — even before Kraftwerk, Silver Apples had been experimenting with synths and electronics in the late ’60s, and classically trained composers started recording in that realm as far back as the ’50s.
But Bowie took the icy, arty electronics of Kraftwerk and brought them to a comparatively mainstream audience. That’s not to say Bowie ripped them off, though — he and Brian Eno brought a new level of sonic cohesiveness to what Kraftwerk started. Trans-Europe Express is a pioneering classic, but certain songs on side one have dated. On the other hand, there isn’t a note on Low that’s aged since it dropped in 1977. It’s not a timeless record — it seems to exist almost entirely apart from time. His greatest artistic achievement, Low‘s impact wouldn’t be fully felt for a generation — it wasn’t until Radiohead’s Kid A that rock and electronic would once again meet and move forward in such a mature fashion.
Often neglected in rockist retellings of history, Bowie is no less essential to pop music. New Wave and synth-pop artists drew heavily on everything from Ziggy to Heroes, and when he went full-on pop with the assistance of Nile Rodgers, his Let’s Dance LP helped set the template for the next 30 years of alternative dance music.
The importance of Hunky Dory to ’70s pop and indie music can’t be neglected either. An album that careens from the proto-punk “Queen Bitch” to the willfully weird song sketch “Andy Warhol” to the radio-friendly “Changes” is pretty much the blueprint for every lo-fi indie pop album of the last 25 years (just try to think of Ariel Pink existing without Bowie). The only other major rock artist making pop albums that stylistically eclectic at the time was Paul McCartney, although his efforts weren’t quite as artistically adventurous.
But what, you ask, of hip-hop? Surely that’s an example of a major genre Bowie had no discernible impact on. As odd as it seems, that’s not true. Among rock stars who did impact rap, Bowie is an important name. His post-Ziggy soul/R&B period — which produced the sax-y white soul LP Young Americans and the super-funky No. 1 single “Fame” — actually had an immediate impact upon the R&B scene at the time. By 1975, no one was more important to funk music than George Clinton, and on Parliament’s immortal Mothership Connection, Bowie not only gets a shout-out, but even served as the inspiration for its centerpiece, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).”
That song and album had an enormous impact on rap, so indirectly, Bowie’s influence snakes through early hip-hop and West Coast G-Funk, too. More directly, “Fame” was sampled on a number of rap songs, and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” — which Bowie produced, imbuing it with a funky, slinky vibe not present on Reed’s non-Bowie material — is one of the most vital rap samples ever thanks to A Tribe Called Quest. Hell, even his Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” made an impact on rap, although Vanilla Ice isn’t exactly an artist anyone wants to take credit for inspiring. So yes, Bowie is one of the few white rock artists who can claim an impact on R&B, funk and hip-hop.
Bowie’s impact on punk is less clear, but still present. Aside from “Queen Bitch” and a few Ziggy tracks, Bowie didn’t play fast and loose — his rock was premeditated and meticulously crafted, something early punk music fought hard to shake out of rock. But even there, the Thin White Duke’s influence appears — not musically, but stylistically. The hair dye and eyeliner-heavy British punk scene took more than a little from Bowie’s outrageous early ’70s fashion, and his comfort presenting himself to the world as a detached musical outsider certainly inspired at least a few punk musicians turned off by smiling pop stars and fame-hungry rockers.
There are two major genres Bowie didn’t clearly impact, however: country and jazz. There’s not much to say about Bowie’s lack of countrified tunes, other than it’s hard to imagine a man so proudly bisexual and open-minded as Bowie finding much compelling about a genre as politically regressive as country (particularly in his heyday).
As for jazz, Bowie did work with Pat Metheny in the ’80s, and he recruited a jazz backing band for his final effort, the experimental Blackstar. But even though Bowie dabbled in jazz, he didn’t exactly impact new jazz music that came out after him. Then again, he was vital to the progressive expansion of rock in the ’70s, which has inspired a number of jazz musicians since then.
As for any counterclaims to the idea that Bowie has influenced more musical genres than any other rock star, let’s address potential arguments. As I see it, there are really only three other rockers who can claim to have had the same cross-genre impact in meaningful ways: Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed and Paul McCartney. If there’s a sub-genre of rock or pop music post-Velvet Underground, whoever started it was probably inspired by Lou Reed. But Reed didn’t impact electronic, soul or funk like Bowie did. As for Hendrix, his guitar acrobatics heavily influenced metal, rock, funk, jazz and, to a lesser extent, hip-hop. But his impact on dance, electronica and pop music just isn’t there.
Regarding McCartney, you could make a convincing argument that between the Beatles and his eclectic career since, he’s impacted everything from metal to electronic to indie. But again, unlike Bowie, he never really got down with the funk, and despite his electronic experimentation on McCartney II, his impact on dance music is negligible.
Even there, McCartney’s impact is more musical — aside for a few years during the Beatles, Macca never influenced personal style and fashion like Bowie. Additionally, Bowie’s various personas have had an impossible-to-overstate influence on teenage minds since the early ’70s — and he will probably continue to inspire personal artistry and nonconformity until long after all of us are dead. Even the idea that one person can have multiple personas and creative identities — and still remain authentic with all of them — is something Bowie pioneered. So in that way, Bowie truly is and will remain a peerless rock star — someone whose music, style and outlook impacted the world in ways no one else did.